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 News and Events

First-of-its-Kind Report Links Long-Term Chemical Exposure in Salons to Adverse Health Outcomes

Salon workers face disproportionate odds of cancer, low birth weight babies, miscarriage, asthma, dermatitis

Nov. 12, 2014, Augusta - As the clock ticks down for Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to either approve or ignore a citizen-initiated proposal to require disclosure of hormone-disrupting chemicals called phthalates in consumer products, including lotions, cosmetics, and shampoos, a new report released yesterday links long-term chemical exposure in salons to adverse health outcomes.

Women’s Voices for the Earth (WVE) has released Beauty and Its Beast: Unmasking the impact of toxic chemicals on salon workers, a first-of-its-kind report that analyzes the unique chemical exposures that salon workers experience, the health impacts they suffer, and the need for greater research, regulation, and innovation to ensure improved health and safety in the salon industry.

“Many salon workers pay too high a price for their jobs,” said WVE Executive Director Erin Switalski. “Salon workers should be able to enjoy their work without paying a toll on their health.”

Over two dozen salon owners, stylists, and barbers in Maine sent a letter to the DEP in September supporting the proposed rule (Chapter 888) that would elevate four phthalates to “priority chemical” status under Maine’s Kid-Safe Products Act and require manufacturers to report their use in products sold in Maine.  The letter stated that the right-to-know rule proposal would help them protect their customers and their employees, and help build market pressure for safer alternatives to dangerous phthalates.

“Stylists know better than most the dangers of chemicals in personal care products,” said Thomas Leighton, co-owner of Parlour, a new salon on Kennebec Street in Portland. “In order to do our job we are coming in contact with hundreds of products every day.  And just like parents, we generally have almost no information about what’s in them, what’s hidden behind the term ‘fragrance’, and what impact they will have on our health - now and in the future.  It’s incredibly frustrating.”

According to the Beauty and Its Beast report, hair sprays, permanent waves, acrylic nail application, and numerous other salon products contain ingredients associated with cancer, neurological symptoms, reproductive harm such as miscarriages and birth defects, asthma, and dermatitis. Examples of hazardous chemical ingredients found in salon products include formaldehyde, toluene, methyl methacrylate, p-phenylenediamine and ammonium persulfate. Elevated levels of hazardous and irritating chemicals such as toluene, ammonia, and methyl methacrylate have been detected in salon air, particularly in salons with minimal or no ventilation.

“Studies across the globe have found correlations between chemical exposures in salons and adverse health outcomes in employees,” said Alexandra Scranton, director of science and research for WVE. “However, until now, there has never been a comprehensive review of existing science that brings all the players onto one stage.”

Based on a review of the scientific literature, WVE found studies showing that hair salon workers have an increased risk of several types of cancer, including breast cancer, lung cancer, cancer of the larynx, bladder cancer, and multiple myeloma. Hairdressers and cosmetologists are also more likely to give birth to low birth weight babies, especially when their work involves using hairspray and permanent waves, and have an increased risk of miscarriage and babies born with cleft palates.

The report also strengthens the case for the need to pass legislation that will require safety substantiation of ingredients in salon products. Currently, the FDA does not require premarket safety testing of ingredients in cosmetics and salon products, and because of a loophole in the law salon products do not commonly carry a full listing of ingredients. While some ingredients may be listed on a Safety Data Sheet for a product, workers often have very limited knowledge of the chemicals to which they are being exposed.

“I’ve got colleagues and customers with severe allergies, whose children have learning disabilities, and who are struggling to get pregnant and are wondering why,” said Brenda Broder, owner of Amore Styles in Portland.  “It’s on everyone’s minds, but there are too many questions, and not enough answers.  As business owners, we want and need good information.  And when that information is low-cost and easy to come by, as in the case of these four phthalates, it’s hard to understand why the DEP would wait one more day to take action.”

A significant proportion of salon workers experience skin conditions like dermatitis, and breathing problems, such as asthma and cough, due to chemical exposures from their work. Some studies found that over 60% of salon workers suffer from skin conditions, such as dermatitis, on their hands. Salon workers are significantly more likely than comparison groups like office workers to suffer from cough and nasal and throat irritation due to their work. 

“Once hair smoothing products like Brazilian Blowout hit salons nationwide, these health issues went to a whole new level because of exposure to formaldehyde, which is very toxic,” said Jennifer Arce, a salon worker based in San Diego, California. “Salon workers can experience bloody noses, sore throats, rashes, and respiratory infections from breathing in these fumes while working in the salon each day.”

Earlier this year the Maine DEP recommended naming formaldehyde as a priority chemical but abruptly withdrew their proposal after hearing objections from the chemical industry.  Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle criticized the move as a delay tactic, given the clear science proving harm.

Kathy Kilrain del Rio, Director of Programs for the Maine Women’s Policy Center said, “Will the DEP follow the science on phthalates and stand up for the health of Maine children and pregnant women?  Or will they put their heads in the sand, ignore the pleas of Maine parents and medical professionals, and let this simple right-to-know opportunity pass by without action?  For the sake of our kids and grandkids, let’s hope the DEP says “yes” to collecting information on these four dangerous chemicals.”

Phthalates are toxic chemicals that disrupt testosterone and thyroid hormones, threatening early childhood development and reproductive health.  Human health studies show that exposure causes birth defects of male sex organs, sperm damage, learning and behavior problems, and asthma and allergies.

First developed in the 1920’s and produced in large quantities since the commercialization of PVC plastic, phthalates are commonly used in consumer products found in the home.  They are used in soft vinyl plastics, such as lunch boxes, kids’ backpacks, school supplies, shower curtains, rain jackets, packaging, table cloths, and flooring. They are also hidden behind the word “fragrance”, where they end up in cosmetics, lotions, and other personal care products.

In May, parents, doctors, and public health activists gathered and submitted the signatures of 2,071 Maine people to the DEP - more than 13 times the number needed to start the rule-making process.  Petition signers came from 168 towns representing every county in Maine.  Signers included 125 legislators – Republicans, Democrats, and Independents – many of whom were the first to sign from their towns.  At July’s public hearing, over 70 people spoke in favor of the rule, no one spoke against, and the Maine Small Business Coalition submitted a letter of support signed by 126 small business owners.

“The DEP has the chance to take meaningful action to protect children and adults from these hormone disruptors,” added Kilrain del Rio.  “No more delays; no more excuses that there are other priorities.  We’re looking for information we can’t get anywhere else about a chemical that we are all exposed to and is truly one of the worst-of-the-worst.  Will the DEP let the clock run out on Maine kids, parents, and salon workers?”

WVE’s new report includes recommendations for protecting salon workers health including improved ventilation, the manufacture of safer products, participation in healthy salon recognition programs, as well as using safer products and appropriate protective equipment.

Posted on 11/13/2014 (Archive on 12/4/2014)


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